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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on the President's Speech Suntory Hall
Barack Obama
Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on the President's Speech Suntory Hall
November 13, 2009
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Hotel Okura
Tokyo, Japan

10:09 P.M. JST

MR. GIBBS: I haven't the slightest idea what time of day or what day it is, so I'll just start by saying I hope you all are doing well.

I think the best way to start this out is to have Ben Rhodes walk you through a little bit -- I know a bunch of you all are going to end up doing setup pieces and standups to talk about what's next on the trip. So we'll start with Ben walking us through -- I think it's the speech tomorrow -- I swear to God I don't know what day it is. And then both of us will do a little Q&A after that.

So, Ben.

MR. RHODES: That's a high bar to -- well, like Robert, I got dressed like 40 hours ago. (Laughter.) So I'll try to be as sharp as I can on this. But the President will give a speech tomorrow in Suntory Hall -- or tomorrow, in Suntory Hall -- to an audience of about 1,500 people. The audience is comprised of a cross-section of prominent Japanese officials, prominent Japanese persons, and then a broader cross-section of the population.

It's a chance for the President to speak both to Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance, as well as the wider Asia Pacific region. The President obviously feels a great connection to this part of the world. He is the first Pacific President that the United States has had; lived for a time in Indonesia after being born in Hawaii. And his experience there very much helped to shape who he is, so he feels a personal connection to this part of the world.

In terms of the issues that he'll be discussing, I think he begins from the premise that he reinforced today, which is that the future of the United States in the 21st century is inextricably linked to Asia and to the Pacific region. This is obviously the fastest-growing economic region in the world. For our own economy, it supports millions of jobs, a huge amount of our trade. There is potential there for more commerce between us, including the potential to create more American jobs through exports. So there's a very deep economic relationship that the President will be able to speak to and that he'll continue to speak to in more detail in Singapore at the APEC forum, which is more focused on these economic issues.

And of course we're inextricably linked because the range of meeting national security challenges that we face -- climate change, nuclear proliferation, extremism -- really depend upon broad and close cooperation with our friends and partners here in Asia.

In terms of how we address those threats, I think you'll hear him reinforce the message he sent tonight about the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and that the opportunity of him and Prime Minister Hatoyama being new leaders presents an opportunity to revitalize that alliance and to make it even stronger in its ability to deal with 21st century threats.

He'll be able to speak a bit to our relationship with China, which is obviously of great interest to people across the region and around the world. Of course he'll be speaking in greater detail on a range of bilateral issues when he goes to China later in the trip, but I think you'll hear him speak to our partnership with China on a range of global issues such as the global economic recovery, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.

You'll also hear him speak about our commitment to reengage with regional organizations in this part of the world. In recent years, the United States has kind of fallen back from being forward-leaning partners in some of these institutions, such as the APEC forum that the President will be attending, as well as the ASEAN forum -- that the President will be hosting the first meeting between a United States President and the 10 members of ASEAN when he gets to Singapore -- as well as a range of new arrangements that are being looked at for regional security and prosperity.

Just a brief run through some of these specific issues. As I said, the economic recovery will be one of them. And the President will continue to develop the notion of a balanced and sustainable growth agenda, which was a key outcome of the last two G20 meetings, particularly the one in Pittsburgh -- so creating a balanced relationship that is better able to sustain growth over time in terms of our relationships in this part of the world.

I think you'll hear him speak to energy and climate change as well. We have robust cooperation with Japan on clean energy -- I think we put out a fact sheet on that tonight as well -- and we're advancing partnerships on energy with other countries in the region. These two have the potential to both end our dependence -- or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels while also being a big part of our efforts to combat climate change. The President will address the issue of climate change in this speech as we lead into the talks in Copenhagen.

Next, the President will reaffirm his agenda on nuclear proliferation. And of course he's taking a series of steps in this area to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, to secure loose nuclear materials, and to pursue the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Specifically tomorrow he'll have an opportunity to speak a bit about North Korea and our efforts with our partners in the region to press North Korea to live up to its obligations. So the President will be taking that opportunity to speak to the North Korean issue.

And then lastly the President will be speaking about our commitment to partner with the nations and peoples of this region as it pertains to human rights issues. And of course our relationship with Japan, for instance, is undergirded largely by of course our shared interests, but also our shared values. The President will be able to address in particular the question of Burma tomorrow in his speech as well, as that's been a leading human rights concern in the region for some time.

And with that I'll turn it over to Robert and we'll take some questions.

MR. GIBBS: Who's got a question?

Q: Robert, is the President preparing any detailed initiatives or announcements? You might have seen today the (inaudible) and Lee Kuan Yew and a number of critics already in Singapore have made statements criticizing the Americans for lacking in trade initiatives and trade leadership. Is the President going to go address this concern in Singapore?

MR. GIBBS: You can go over the speech in Singapore --

MR. RHODES: Yes, trade will certainly be one of the issues addressed both in the speech tomorrow, in terms of what our -- both in terms of our broader approach, which is tied to this question of balance and sustainable growth, as well as to some of these specific issues and agreements that are pending in the region. The President will be discussing that in his speech tomorrow night at length. I think in Singapore, he will have a more extended opportunity to discuss some of those issues in his leaders meeting there as well. So he will be laying out the contours of our approach on these issues.

MR. GIBBS: Chuck.

Q: Robert, what can you tell us about the Greg Craig resignation? And then second, then, there was a report -- there were some reports that there was -- the meeting that the President is going to have with the Chinese youth in Shanghai, that there was still some trouble getting the ground rules with the Chinese government. Is there any update on that?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I'll let Ben do the second one. In terms of the first one, I'm not at this point going to make any personnel announcements. I can say, as somebody who's worked with Greg through the latter part of the campaign -- well, throughout the campaign, really, the latter part of the campaign in debate prep and then as White House Counsel, that the President -- the President sees Greg as a friend and a trusted advisor and somebody whose contributions to this administration are lengthy in -- particularly in setting up a process that will result in the closure of Guantanamo Bay; that was instrumental in both picking, nominating, and approving the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in Sonia Sotomayor; in running a big operation in the White House; and in helping to shepherd judicial picks in general -- not just the selection, but through the committee process on Capitol Hill.

You want to do the --

Q: Should we expect to hear anything today?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have anything at this point.

MR. RHODES: Well, all I'd say on the other then, Chuck, is the President is planning to do an event in Shanghai with Chinese youth, a town hall format with the ability to reach an audience both there in Shanghai and in China through the Internet. Candidly, I haven't been on -- I was in the air for a long time and wasn't in those meetings so I actually don't know what the -- I have nothing further to add to that. They were working out some of the details of the event on the ground there, but we can check on that and get back to you.

Q: But the details are whether it gets broadcast in China. I mean, that seems to be the big --

MR. RHODES: You know, I haven't been involved. I've been back in the -- what we've said is simply that the President would like the opportunity to speak to a broad audience of the Chinese people, and I think that as it pertains to some of the specifics of that, our team was working that out with our Chinese partners at the event.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma'am.

Q: On the speech tomorrow, language dealing with China is always tricky, so can you talk a little bit about how you balance those values that you talked about that are important in Japan and South Korea and other parts of Asia with talk of reaching out to China? What are some of the specific ways that he'll balance that?

MR. RHODES: I'd say a couple things. First of all, I think you've seen the President pursue a comprehensive and positive engagement with China. His belief is that on the whole range of issues that you look at in the 21st century that we will be in a better position to advance our interests in solving those issues in many instances when we work with China. That said, of course he's also been very clear that there will times when we disagree and that's part of having an evolving engagement between our two countries.

As it pertains to the region, I think the President believes strongly that these relationships should be reinforcing; that strong alliances between the United States and our traditional allies, developing partnerships with rising powers like China, as well as deepening engagement with countries like Indonesia, for instance -- all can be mutually reinforcing; that we are -- that because of the interconnected nature of these issues, whether it's trade, economic recovery, energy and climate, that when we are able to engage the Chinese in a positive way to move forward on these issues, that serves the interests of not just the United States and China but of the whole region; similarly, that our strong traditional alliances such as our U.S.-Japan alliance has served as a bedrock of security and prosperity for the region as well.

So I think the approach the President would take is that he seeks engagement that, on all these tracks -- bilateral alliances, emerging partnerships with countries such as China, and regional organizations -- and that through that engagement he believes that we'll be in a better position to advance our own interests in the region and also advance the interests of the region more broadly.

Q: Can I just follow up on North Korea really quickly? You said that he was going to address that. Is that going to be new language that we'll hear on North Korea?

MR. RHODES: No, I think -- what I would say is that it's an opportunity for him to speak at greater length about the issue, but we're not -- you know, I wouldn't anticipate new language per se. Obviously we announced recently that, in addition to pursuing our six-party talks, we may pursue a bilateral channel as well. But I think you will see him addressing the issue of North Korea at greater length than he has in the past.

MR. GIBBS: Jake.

Q: You have the $5 billion from Japan for Afghanistan for reconstruction and economic development. What other assistance is the President going to try to get from all the other countries that he will come in contact with on this trip when it comes to Afghanistan specifically?

MR. GIBBS: Well, you should note too that the two leaders also in their meeting talked about assistance from the government of Japan to Pakistan, that the President also thanked the Japanese government for. I think without a doubt this is a topic obviously that will come up throughout the trip and in many of the bilateral meetings that the President has. In terms of -- I think in terms of specifics, obviously we had a NATO conference in March in which a number of people pledged to do things either in direct training or in contributions, as the Japanese did on the civilian side. And there's later in the month of November a force generation conference that NATO will also be having again.

Do you want to add to that?

MR. RHODES: I think I'd -- a couple things, Jake. First of all, the President very much welcomed this commitment, and its focus on the civilian effort in Afghanistan is one that the President and Prime Minister spoke about tonight. And they agreed upon the importance of strengthening our civilian -- our international capacity to support the civilian effort in Afghanistan.

Secondly, your question specifically, South Korea very recently provided a pretty robust additional commitment to Afghanistan. I think it was like a week or two ago -- involved, again, their efforts on the PRT and civilian side. We can get you that specific information, but in terms of -- so in terms of specific commitments, two of our close allies, Japan and South Korea, actually as we were working up to this trip, have made what we feel to be very, very strong commitments, and again particularly because they are addressing this issue that the President feels needs attention in Afghanistan, which is the civilian side.

More broadly, too, I think that you've seen a number of Asian countries have been very involved there -- Australia, for instance. So the President may have an opportunity to speak briefly with Kevin Rudd -- not, again, to seek a commitment, but to consult as he's winding down his review.

So I think you'll see consultations taking place throughout the trip, but in terms of commitments I think the main ones were the Japanese recently and the South Koreans a little bit before that.

Q: I wanted to ask you if you could walk me through the decisions to set up this working-level group on the Okinawa base and how you got to it, given that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that it was time to move on? Do you see this as a real reopening of the issue or is it just sort of --

MR. RHODES: The work -- the Prime Minister and the President agreed in their meeting, and I think they reiterated publicly, that both of them have an interest in moving forward in an expeditious manner in terms of addressing this issue, and in implementing the agreement that exists between the governments. And that is the work that will be done by the working group, taking into consideration the -- our treaty obligations and our basic needs here in the region, as well as the concerns of the local population.

So this is a working-level group that's focused on implementation of the agreements that exist between the government, and the strong agreement of both the Prime Minister and the President was that they proceed very expeditiously in that work.

Q: But this working-level group does not indicate that the U.S. is willing to renegotiate the deal?

MR. RHODES: The fundamental underpinning deal? It's an implementation working group.

Q: So does that mean you're not open to the opening -- you're not --

MR. RHODES: I'll leave it at that. Yes, there is an agreement that exists between the two governments that this working group will be negotiating the nature of that implementation to take into concerns all sides of the issue.

Q: I'm sorry, just trying to figure out whether it's fair to say that you've agreed to reopen this agreement.

MR. RHODES: No, I think we're looking at the implementation of this agreement.

MR. GIBBS: Jonathan.

Q: Prime Minister Hatoyama mentioned a trip that Special Representative Bosworth was going to be taking to North Korea, and I want -- was hoping you could give us a little more details and whether that actually -- a date has been set for that. Second of all, when you spoke about -- you mentioned Burma specifically when you talked about human rights, and I'd like to know if the President is going to mention Tibet in his speech tomorrow. And third, on --

MR. GIBBS: Do you remember the Japanese press --

Q: Yes, I've been inspired. On rebalancing, does the President have -- is the President going to make any concrete proposals on how the Chinese can improve or ramp up their domestic consumption as the United States tries to diminish its domestic consumption and increase savings?

MR. GIBBS: Let me do the first question. We announced that within the framework of the six-party talks, Ambassador Bosworth, at some point this month, after the conclusion of the President's trip, would travel to North Korea. Again, this was done after, and with, months of consultations with our six-party partners, the goal of which obviously is to bring the North Koreans back to the six-party talks and fulfilling their responsibility of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

MR. RHODES: What were the --

Q: Tibet and rebalancing.

MR. RHODES: On rebalancing, the President will be -- I think that what you saw in Pittsburgh is a commitment to the kind of balanced growth that can be more broadly sustained. And the President has been very clear, and I think will continue to be clear, that one of the lessons of the economic crisis was that growth that is driven primarily by U.S. consumers is not sustainable in the 21st century, and that there does need to be a movement towards more balanced demand, particularly as many countries in this region have experienced dramatic growth in recent years and decades.

So I think one of the core tenets of his approach which he'll be speaking to tomorrow is simply how do we -- when we try to make sure that this recovery is sustained, that we address those imbalances, and frankly, that there's great potential as we do that to create jobs in the United States -- because already there are millions of jobs that are supported by our exports to this region, and to the extent that we can increase, even just very slight increases, in that regard would lead to a substantial job creation at home.

So I think this will be a topic in the speech and this will be a topic in Singapore that he'll be speaking to in the leaders summit. And I'll let him speak to it. I don't want to get out ahead of him. But I think he'll be laying out the approach that he's continued to pursue all year through the G20, and this will be a period of active consultation with each of these countries about what would -- what that entails.

Q: Will he mention Tibet?

MR. RHODES: In the speech tomorrow? He will not mention Tibet. He will, of course, mention our commitment to the rights and freedoms that we believe all people should have, and I'll leave it at that.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma'am.

Q: I just wanted to follow up on the trade question. You've just emphasized the importance of exports, and the President left for this trip talking about the importance of exports and export opportunities here in Asia. How can he avoid this message of being seen as one-sided? Is he going to promise to reinvigorate the trade agenda? Is he -- I mean, there are concerns that, as was mentioned, you know, (inaudible) one-sided.

MR. GIBBS: Again, I think the President will have more to say on this in Singapore. I would note that us talking about exports and the value of exports and job creation is not something that started in the past few days. Our commit to ensuring that the IMF money that was talked about at the very first G20 meeting that the President attended so that nations that are -- were experiencing -- smaller developing nations that were experiencing the type of economic conditions that were affecting the entire world still have the ability to -- through using this money to finance -- the ability to purchase exports from the United States and therefore help our economic recovery and ultimately create jobs.

So I know this was something they've worked on and the President will have more on this in Singapore.

I don't know if you have something to add.

MR. RHODES: I'd just add, Caren, that this is not -- this is in the interest of the region, for a number of reasons. One, the -- these countries suffered as well under the old model; you know, that dependence on U.S. demand was -- I think everyone agreed that a lesson of the economic crisis was that there needed to be a broader pool of demand around the world so that there could be a more sustainable growth model for the global economy.

So this is something that I think that all of the G20 nations agreed to in Pittsburgh, so this is something that is in the common interests of the nations of the region. And this is something that many of them have pursued through the context of the G20.

MR. GIBBS: Let's take a couple more and then -- Major.

Q: Robert, the President said the decision on Afghanistan will come soon and will be fully transparent. Can you define both of those? And how irritated is either he or you or the administration that the process itself is under criticism for taking what some interpret as too long?

MR. GIBBS: Well, you know -- I should probably be careful on number two.

Q: Go ahead.

MR. GIBBS: I'm tired, and that might not be a -- no, look, I would say on number two, and I'd reiterate what the President said, making a fast decision that is wrong, I have yet to be convinced is in the national security interest of the United States, that it's in the best interest of any man or woman that is sent to fight in Afghanistan, or is good for the stability of a very dangerous region of the world.

This President is taking the time to get this decision right. A war that, I will mention, has been talked about in the Situation Room as under-resourced for quite some time, I think -- so the President will -- I don't have a change in his timetable, despite the fact that when other people come up with timetables you all ask me about those timetables. I still think we're -- while soon, it's certainly not going to be on this trip.

The President believed and I think if you talk to Secretary Gates and you saw what he said yesterday, if you talk to General Petraeus or General McChrystal, the previous meeting that we had on Wednesday was productive from everybody's viewpoint. We are closer after that meeting to getting to a strategy I think that everybody believes has a real opportunity to be successful.

And that's the bottom line on this, Major. There are a lot of people who failed to mention this as an important topic for many years who have apparently found this country on the map recently.

What was your first question?

Q: Define "soon" and "fully transparent."

MR. GIBBS: Well, pick up a paper and I can define for you "fully transparent" as it relates to this process. I think you have seen, for better or for worse, great transparency in the discussion of options throughout this process, most wrong often echoed.

Q: I guess what I'm getting at is will there be something that's different or public about the concluding aspect of this --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think -- and we have begun to discuss, but I don't have details to get into. Once a decision is made, the President understands the important aspect of explaining what went into making this decision, why the decision was made, how it will impact on our men and women serving in the military, on the health of our force, on our strategy for transferring power back to the Afghans, creating a better civilian structure, ensuring that corruption and governance are addressed by the Afghans. The President understands that and will explain fully what this policy means for the American people.

And in terms of "soon," I think we're -- like I said, it's not going to be during this trip, so I still think we're a couple weeks away.

Q: So not before Thanksgiving?

MR. GIBBS: I have not been told -- there's -- there are a few days between us getting back and Thanksgiving. I have not been told that that's --

Q: There's a meeting, at least.

MR. GIBBS: Say again.

Q: You also said there would be another meeting --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I think -- look, I think one of the -- clearly, one of the offshoots of Wednesday was we're not finished yet.

Q: Hey, Robert --

MR. GIBBS: Matt.

Q: -- you joke about that, but Secretary Gates said everybody, as far as the leaks -- "people need to just shut up."

MR. GIBBS: I don't disagree with the Secretary on that. (Laughter.) I will say this -- I would be remiss if I didn't pick up this baton a little bit.

I have, Ben has, Denis has, and others have cautioned you all about writing some of your stories, right? I'm going to take my chance at this. There were -- first, there were stories that we were coalescing around a certain amount of options, right? Then a week later we were sending 34,000 troops. All of you e-mailed me about that. A day and a half later, we'd settled on 40,000. That was all in about a 10-day period of time, all with the backdrop of the President had already made a decision, despite the fact that I had stood up here many times and said he hadn't.

So my admonition is, when you call us and try to check a story that we tell you is erroneous, it's because it's not true. That's part of what our job is. I think some of these things have gotten way off the rails because we have on many occasions tried to dissuade people from writing what they thought was certain. I can't imagine that people who listen to whatever sources said the President had settled on a decision -- I would challenge each and every one of you and each and every one of your organizations to call the people -- I won't ask who they are, you all know them -- ask them why a decision hasn't been made, after telling everybody and taking up lots of ink and recyclable paper about a decision that's already been made.

Q: Could you just --

MR. GIBBS: I'd say I went cranky on that one, Major. (Laughter.)

Q: Robert?


Q: Can you finish that thought about -- with the offshoot of Wednesday's meeting, we're not finished yet? Does that mean there is another meeting before Thanksgiving?

MR. GIBBS: There's not one currently on the schedule that I know of. But I doubt that this is going to be finished again without an additional -- at least an additional meeting.

Matt. And then I'll come over here.

Q: When you talk about the President explaining his decision, do you mean the President will give a major speech, outlining how he came to this decision, number one? And number two, has there been any effort made to prevent a sort of Chavez moment where the President winds up in a photograph with General Sein of Burma at this ASEAN meeting?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have a good answer on two.

MR. RHODES: Yes, he's meeting with the ASEAN 10, that's all.

MR. GIBBS: On your first one, I anticipate that -- again, the parameters have not been decided, but I anticipate that the President will, in announcing the decision initially, do it in a big speech that will lay out in totality our way forward.

I will say this, Matt. I don't view this -- I don't think anybody on the security team does, and I know the President certainly does not view this as a one-shot deal. I think we are going to, throughout the coming weeks and months, continually explain why we're there. I think what the President has made sure to ask that is fully developed is how do we address, as I said the other day, not just who and how we get folks in, but when we get folks out; how do we create an environment that transfers something to the Afghans, because we've been there -- we're now in a -- we've been there for eight, going into nine years of this. We're not going to be there forever.

And so this is something that I think the President will -- has asked those involved in these meetings to come back with and will explain to the American people.

Q: Robert, a Burma question. Would it be a mistake for the President to wind up in a grip-and-grin photo with the leader of Burma?

MR. RHODES: I mean, I don't want to comment on photos that haven't happened yet. I mean, he's meeting with the ASEAN 10 and he'll speak to his Burma policy tomorrow, and we'll leave it at that.

MR. GIBBS: Steven.

Q: Just so you know, the White House Press Office put out the comments from the President on Bauer and Greg Craig, so if you want to revise and extend your previous remarks, you're more than welcome to. It has been announced.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I was going to say, the only thing I would revise and extend is that -- is the announcement having been made. I don't -- it doesn't change the way the President views the accomplishments of Greg Craig, and I think everybody knows the type of trust and relationship he has in Bob Bauer.

Q: Why is he leaving? It's really not that long a time to be -- to have been White House Counsel.

MR. GIBBS: I assume in the announcement they've sent out Greg's letter, which I think addresses that. Greg is -- Greg was, as you know, somebody who served in a previous administration in foreign policy. That's his passion. He was in some ways a reluctant acceptor of the counsel position and did not ever plan to stay long term. He made a commitment to the President to set forward the ideas and the ideals that the President had talked about in the campaign; he has done so, in the President's view, admirably; and is going to return to private practice.

Q: To follow that story, just to be clear, Craig is leaving because the President is dissatisfied in any way with his handling of the Guantanamo issue?

MR. GIBBS: That's correct.

Q: Could you expand on the decision not to mention Tibet in the speech tomorrow, given the fact it's one of the premier human rights in Asia, along with Burma? And you know there have been some accusations that the administration has downplayed the issue to avoid angering China before the President goes there.

MR. RHODES: I mean, all I'd say is that we're -- we remain committed to the rights of the Tibetan people to achieve their own human rights and their cultural identity. Our position on that is very clear and very strong. The President will look forward to the opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama to discuss this and he has said he will raise this issue as well as -- and attempting to make progress on this with the Chinese and Tibetans.

I mean, in terms of tomorrow's speech, he's just working on a set of issues which are the ones that I enumerated for you.

MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.

END 10:52 P.M. JST

Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on the President's Speech Suntory Hall," November 13, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86907.
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